Christians Need a Deeper Kind of Bible Study

Ken Howard | OnFaith Voices By on

I have long thought that our modern approaches to Bible study provide an inadequate set of tools for those seeking Biblical inspiration in the post-modern world. After all, science and theology have discredited Enlightenment Modernism’s promise that human reason could arrive at universal truths in all areas of human knowledge — including religion.

In science, Quantum Physics caused the death of certainty with the Observer Effect and Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As a result, science no longer seeks absolute certainty of truth, but rather increasing verisimilitude (something approaching truth — by triangling in on the truth through repeated observations, so errors related to observer bias are statistically reduced.

Meanwhile, theology has come to a renewed realization that our modern attempts to achieve certainty of religious truth through appeals to biblical inerrancy (conservative) or biblical text-critical analysis (liberal) will most certainly fall short as well.

Both theological approaches rest on the same flawed assumption that human subjectivity can be eliminated: the former from the reader’s understanding of the inerrant Word and the latter from the scholar’s critical analysis of scriptural texts. This could only be the case if the human mind were somehow less fallen — less affected by sin — than other human faculties, a presumption that flies in the face of the Judeo-Christian understand of human nature.

The Church, faced with a similar inability to eliminate human error from biblical interpretation, needs a method of Bible study that would achieve increasing verisimilitude by counteracting its own observer effect, through similarly triangling in on the truth.

Providentially, such a method already exists, though the Church didn’t develop it. Our Jewish brothers and sisters developed it a long time ago. It is called Midrash. Not surprisingly, given my own Jewish roots, Midrash is my own preferred method of Bible study.

So, what is Midrash?

Black fire and white fire

As Rabbi Rami Shapiro points out in his eponymous article, the ancient rabbis spoke of the Torah as “black fire on white fire” — the black fire being the printed letters and white fire being the spaces around and between. Both kinds of fire must be read and interpreted if anything close to a full understanding of God’s Torah (literally, “instruction”) is to be reached.

God gave the Torah without the vowel marks or punctuation that would enable us to pin down a single, literal translation. So even the act of reading scripture requires creative interpretation. Since God does not make mistakes, God must intend for us to bring our creativity and imagination to the task of reading and interpreting scripture.

Multiple meanings, perspectives, and levels — and it was good

Multiple meanings
Rabbi Shapiro points to Leviticus 19:18 here. The most common verbalized reading of this passage is “Ve’ahavta et, rayecha k’mocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). However, it can also be vocalized as “Ve’ahavta et, rahecha k’mocha” (“Love your evil as yourself”). Both are legitimate readings. Both must be considered to fully understand the text.

Multiple perspectives
Midrash also recognizes that each person who reads the Torah cannot do so without bringing his/her own perspective to bear, each resulting in a slightly different understanding of the text — all of which are legitimate. The more perspectives we take into account, the more complete our understanding is of the passage.

Multiple levels
Finally, Midrash recognizes that any passage of scripture must have multiple levels of meaning — from the surface-level meaning of the literal words to deeper/metaphorical meanings to life applications to hidden mysteries waiting to be revealed.

And it was good
To use the language of quantum physics, Midrash tells us that achieving the highest level of verisimilitude about any passage requires we consider all meanings, all perspectives, and all levels of meaning about the text.  Jewish tradition regarding the giving of the Torah at Sinai holds that while all the people present received the same text, each person received a slightly different understanding of it based on his/her unique perspective.

By multiplying the number of literal readings by the number of adult men and women present by the number of levels of meaning, the ancient Rabbis arrived at the conclusion that there must be at least 345,600,000 different legitimate interpretations of any letter, word, or verse of the commandments.

A note on accepting paradox

Midrash places a high value on the ability to entertain seemingly contradictory ideas without choosing between them. By encouraging us to seek out and wrestle with the paradoxes of scripture, Midrash pushes us to transcend our limited perspectives and move towards broader and deeper understandings that are closer to a “God’s eye view.”

As Rabbi Shapiro points out, the governing principle in Midrash is “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim, Chayyim,” which roughly translated, means “These words and those words (no matter how contradictory) are both the words of the Living God.”

How is Midrash practiced?

The process of Midrash can be remembered by the mnemonic PRDS, pronounced PaRDeS, which means Paradise. The four steps of Midrash are:

1. P’shat (literally “simple” or “literal”)

Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning. For example, if the Torah says God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, we are not allowed to say God spoke to Moses through an exploding cigar. It is also known as the grammatical level.

2. Remez (literally “hint” or “suggestion”)

Rather than avoiding what appear to be contradictions or textual errors — or trying to explaining them away — this step calls us to seek them out as hints of deeper meaning. This is sometimes called the allegorical level.

3. D’rash (literally “investigation” or “insight”)

In this step, we use our imaginations to explore all possible meanings and applications of the text. This is sometimes called the parabolic or homiletical level of Midrash.

4. Sod (literally “secret” or “mystery”)

Finally, we are called to open ourselves to the mysteries revealed to us through creative imagination of Drash. This level of meaning is sometimes referred to as the mystical level.

Let’s go back to Leviticus 19:18. If we hold the two meanings in paradoxical tension rather than dismissing one of them, we might come to the conclusion that the deeper meaning of the passage is that we cannot fully love our neighbor until we learn to love ourselves despite our own shortcomings.

(It is interesting to note that in the early Church, the more literalist schools of Biblical interpretation similarly insisted on treating apparent contradictions as hints to go deeper.)

But what about the Greek?

I know what some of you are thinking . . .

“Okay,” you say. “It’s all well and good to use Midrash to interpret Hebrew, since it lacks vowel points and such. But what about Greek? Aren’t Greek words much more precisely written, leaving little room for alternate word readings?” Good question!

Greek lacks punctuation

There are no commas, periods, or other forms of punctuation in Greek. Therefore, a passage like Luke 16:14 could legitimately be read as, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and ridiculed him,” or “The Pharisees who were lovers of money heard all this, and ridiculed him.”

The first reading condemns all Pharisees as lovers of money; the second only those who loved money. Both are legitimate translations. Both might be true.

Yes. Greek words are more precisely written, so on a word-for-word basis, the meanings are significantly clearer. However, there are several characteristics of Koine Greek (the version commonly used when the Bible was written) that can give rise to alternate, yet legitimate, interpretations.

Greek words have multiple meanings

Just as in English, the same Greek word may have different meanings depending on context. It is nearly impossible to translate a word from one language to another while retaining all of the word’s various connotations.

Greek sentences are non-linear

Because the Greek language is based on case endings of words, word order does not hold the same meaning it does in non-case ending languages, like English. For example, the English translation of 1 John 4:18 is. “Perfect love casts out fear.” However, in the original Greek, the words in the sentence can be read in either direction or even both directions at once. So it also could be legitimately read as, “Perfect fear casts out love” or even as “Love and fear are inversely related: the more you have of one, the less you have of the other.”

*   *   *

Let’s not fool ourselves

Much is often made of the difference between translation and interpretation. But let’s not fool ourselves, okay? There is no such thing as Biblical translation that does not involve interpretation. All languages are culturally bound — idioms, metaphors, nuances of one language are more often than not lost in simple word-for-word translation.

And so we must be faithful interpreters of God’s word by bringing to bear our imagination and creativity, while realizing we are not free to use the biblical text merely as a pretext — a mere jumping off point for creative expression or imaginative theological navel gazing.

If we to arrive at anything close to an accurate expression of what God is trying to communicate to us through any text, we must never allow ourselves to become disconnected from the literal text.

This is what makes Midrash such a wonderful Bible study. It keeps us anchored to the words of God while harnessing our God-given creativity to achieve an increasingly complete understanding of the Word of God.

Stay tuned for part two on how to apply Midrash to your Bible study.

Image courtesy of Lightstock.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.
  • Matt Solomon

    This is a great article and the author should be commended. I do have one area of clarification, though. The author seems to be mistaken when he states: “So it also could be legitimately read as, “Perfect fear casts out love” or even as “Love and fear are inversely related: the more you have of one, the less you have of the other.”” Although Greek word order does not matter for the Greek speaker, the case system determines the function of words in a sentence. In this instance, “love” is in the nominative case and acts as the subject while “fear” is in the accusative case and acts as the object of the verb “casts.” The adjective “perfect” also clearly modifies “love” because of proximity and concord. There are places in the Greek New Testament where ambiguity exists, but the only way to read 1 John 4.18 is “perfect love casts out fear.”

  • Ryan M.

    There are (at least) two major problems with this article. Firstly, I don’t know enough Hebrew to seriously engage with the points you’ve made about it, but I certainly hope you haven’t misrepresented it as badly as you have Koine Greek. Matt has pointed out the issue with your statements about 1 John 4:18; the Greek system of cases and word order generally allows for greater precision in the meaning of a sentence, not less. On top of that, your point about words having multiple possible meanings is fine, although that doesn’t mean that all of them should be permitted in any given situation. We have words in English that mean many different things (“love” is the most famous example), but that doesn’t mean that we treat all of the meanings as included when we interpret; we use context to isolate which of the possible meanings of the word actually fit the author’s intended meaning for the sentence. Additionally, Koine Greek often doesn’t need punctuation to distinguish between the shades of meaning that you refer to. You’ve picked a particularly bad example, given that the word “who” is inserted to make the translation flow more smoothly. More literally, Luke 16:14 reads “The [article] Pharisees [noun] lovers of money [adjective] being [participle] and [conjunction] they were ridiculing [verb] him [pronoun]” – “The Pharisees, being lovers of money, were ridiculing him” or “The Pharisees were lovers of money and were ridiculing him”. In order to specify a group of Pharisees who were lovers of money, the participle could have easily been omitted, leaving the adjective to directly modify the noun, allowing a translation that specified a group of Pharisees who loved money. While there are some ambiguous passages in the New Testament, in many cases where multiple English translations are viable, it’s because English is insufficiently precise to communicate an idea that is completely unambiguous in the original language.

    Secondly, it’s disturbing to see how wholeheartedly you’ve embraced an epistemological stance that greatly limits our ability to know truth. Even if it’s true that we can’t know anything else, within the Body of Christ, the Holy Spirit is at work, speaking to us individually and collectively and informing us of things that we never could have known of our own accord. As we test what we believe against the Scriptures, against fellow believers in the Body, and against the voice of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, we can approach the knowledge of what is truly true. Our Bible study should be oriented towards reaching this state, not a postmodernistic view of all perspectives being valid.

  • Martin Hughes

    I am not sure that this method of allegorical reading was originally Jewish – it goes back to the arguments about interpreting Homer so that he escaped Plato-style accusations of teaching immorality. Love affairs among gods become instructions about the forces that created the universe and so forth. It has been used profusely within Christianity, especially by the Origenists. There’s an interesting article on this by Daniel Boyarin in the Cambridge Companion to the Bible.
    Poetry and theology do in a sense mean more than they say but they don’t mean anything I want them to mean. The paradox always is that the apparently liberating method always ends up demanding that we accept the meaning that is the wanted or desired meaning of the expert interpreter, who proves his expertise precisely by his ability to see beyond the literal. Authoritarian religious institutions become more powerful and insistent.